7 Life Lessons I Learned in the Kitchen
By: Victor Ayala
One of my passions is cooking, always has been. Food also is a big part of Spanish culture, so preparing it right is crucial. Like many things, Latinos tend to “overdo it” when it comes to food. Dishes are fatty, savory and packed with flavor. Meals are central to all family and religious gatherings be it holidays, weddings, birthdays, backyard BBQs, work nights, and even soccer practice. No event is too big or too small to do it up. Sometimes just a late night snack of buttery crackers with cheddar cheese, salami, and coffee can be a special culinary experience. One of my favorite smells from the kitchen, is the aroma of fresh herbs and vegetables sautéing in olive oil in my big cast iron pot for the mirepoix. It goes without saying, cooking is a source of pride for me.
My first experience in the art of cooking traditional foods like rice and beans, was handed down to me primarily from the matriarchs in my family but occasionally from the men as well. Recipes have been passed down generation to generation by word of mouth, everyone adding their special touch. I have made it my mission in life to learn how make the perfect white rice, which sounds simple but in practice is anything but. After ten years of practice, I am getting pretty close. My journey in the kitchen has also allowed me to explore other cultures through food. So having goat curry, with a side of basmati and samosas is not strange thing at our house. Neither is making noodles from scratch for a bowl of ramen. If you are willing to try new things, the kitchen can be a place of great experimentation with sublime outcomes.
Cooking in itself can be a powerful teacher, and not just about food. One lesson that has taken me time to appreciate is that technique and practice are everything. Few people start cooking one day and their food is amazing the first time they try. Cooking is easy to learn but takes years to master. The perfect empanada can take decades to achieve. The best part about cooking are the lessons I have learned in the kitchen that go beyond the pots and pans in my cabinets. I credit the benefits of failure in the kitchen with learning how to overcome it in the outside world. Today, failure continues to be my most effective tool for learning hard lessons. I believe the kitchen experience is much broader than just about food and nutrients. Below I cover 7 life lessons I have learned in the kitchen or am trying put in practice. Maybe you might be able to apply them to lessons in your own life.
- It is never too early or too late to learn to cook
What is the appropriate age to start learning something new? 10, 20, 40, 60? We tend to think that if you don’t start an activity by the time you are a certain age you are too old. Sometimes we say vice versa: “That is really for kids to do.” Cooking, I have learned, is neither of those things. My father-in law didn’t start cooking well into his 40s but you will be hard pressed to find anybody in Puerto Rico that makes garbanzo beans like he does. I started cooking when I was in elementary school. Back then my piez de resistance was a solid bowl of Mac and Cheese with hotdogs. However, my passion for cooking really took off after my wife and I got our first own kitchen (she also enjoys cooking, but not as much as me). It was in that space that I had the freedom to experiment with food. Our whole family has really gotten into the whole “foodie” scene and I am fortunate to say that our passion for cooking has been instilled into our kids. So much so that I could already live off their cooking skills! There are time I come home from work and my wife says the kids made dinner. It is always a great surprise. So as you think about whether or not to start something, remember that in the Special Theory of Relativity, Einstein determined that time is relative--in other words, the rate at which time passes depends on your frame of reference. Start creating your universe today.
- Real food takes time
Everyone knows microwaved food is fast but generally not good, with the exception of popcorn, but even that doesn’t compare to fresh popped corn. The “microwaves” generated in the oven are meant to stimulate the water molecules in the food which then warms up the food. Heat your food too long, and all the water is evaporated leaving your food tough and chewy. In Spanish cuisine, as in life, real cooking takes time, so make sure you set that time apart. A microwaved three course meal is probably not really appetizing. If you want something you can be proud of and share with others don’t rush, avoid the quick and easy way, and take the time to appreciate the art of slow roasting and simmering food. Sometimes in life we try to microwave activities because we are short on time, and in the end, just as with food, things “taste” weird. Make sure you have, and make, enough time for your activities.
- Your first pancake will probably look and taste bad
Sometimes people are afraid to try something new because they fear failing. However, if we all lived by this thought process we would always be doing the same old thing. Life would be pretty boring without that new salsa or that curry chicken. So why not try a different approach, where you go in knowing that things will probably not be perfect the first time around and decide to continue to try until things click. I call this The First Pancake Method. Making pancakes for the inexperienced can be a tricky thing, and typically the first pancake you cook will not be golden and fluffy, or butter crispy like on the side of the mixture box until you become a breakfast pro. The batter will be too thick, there isn’t enough butter, or the pan is too hot. Leave the first pancake for yourself and adjust until you have found that sweet spot combination. Don’t be afraid to fail on your first try like most people do. Accept that failure is part of the process and is completely acceptable.
- Grandma knows best
Great students have great teachers and great teachers have experience. It is good to be knowledgeable but just because you know that water boils at 212oF and that salt is made up of sodium and chloride, won’t make you a good cook. There are things you can only learn in the school of life. I have learned that when you decide to try something new, it’s a good idea to find a mentor or coach to help guide you from novice to someone with experience. In my family, everyone can tell you that grandma could feed any army of kids with one can of corn beef and a sack of rice. No cookbook or YouTube video is going to show you that. Our elders have life experiences rich in success and mistakes from which we should draw from. It would be foolish not to. Often times we think we know it all; that we have read all the books and taken the classes but what happens in those life situations where there is no manual or chapter to reference. You call on grandma or that mentor that has had life experience and has seen a thing or two in their time. There is an old saying from back home that says the devil knows more about being bad from being old than from being a devil. In other words, with age comes wisdom. Mentors don’t have to be anything official; often time the best mentors are just a phone call away in our parents, or grandparents.
- If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen
Sometimes cooking, like life, can get stressful, and if you are not careful you can get burned. Worse yet, if things get really crazy, you can also burn others. It is important to be able to recognize your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations, and to make sure that others that depend on you are aware of those limitations. Taking on more than you can handle will not only result in poor performance but can also result in fatigue, irritability and serious health problems. Chronic stress can cause depression, anxiety and personality disorder. It can also cause cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and stroke. No one will enjoy your cooking if you are not around to make the meal. So before stretching yourself too thin it is important to know when to hit the pause button because if you are not careful you can over cook more than just the rice. Some stress is to be expected and can be healthy, but it is imperative that our bodies get rest and time to relax to decrease the levels of the stress hormone (cortisol) and get our bodies back in balance. The point here is know your limitations and don’t be afraid to hit the pause button if necessary to assess and evaluate your situation. It’s better to step out of the kitchen for a while than to be wheeled into the Emergency Room with chest pains. Remember-a happy chef is a better chef.
- Fasting brings awareness
In our modern first world society, food availability is something we take for granted. The idea of not having food for many of us is so foreign that we couldn’t imagine a day without food. This why television shows where people who try going without eating for weeks is so entertaining to us. However, more than likely most of us would not have to go too far back in in our family history to learn about a time when food availability was not so easy and there were times when people went hungry. Therefore in my experience it has been a good practice to go without eating for a while to experience huger, to experience discomfort so that I can better appreciate when we do have food. Going without something is a good idea for many other parts of our life too. Maybe we spend too much time on our phones, checking social media or playing video games. It’s probably a good idea to stop those activities for a while to get a better appreciation of when we do have those things but also give our bodies a break. Going without food for a while is not going to kill you, neither is staying off your phone.
- Food always tastes better when you have someone to share it with
Cooking and sharing a meal has been called the quintessential human experience. No other activity unites humanity the way sitting down for a meal does. All arguments can be left behind when friends, families and enemies sit down to break bread. Eating together is such a powerful experience that all cultures and societies on earth have rituals and celebrations surrounding meals. Sharing a meal with others is such a sacred process. In my house, I learned that if you are cooking you should make enough for everyone. Many religions celebrate ceremonies around the concept of a meal and breaking bread. Few activities can rival cooking and sharing the meal to across all people around the world. Cooking and sharing the meal is part of what makes us human. It bonds us and makes us more unified. During a time when political forces are trying to separate us, sharing your food and your experience with others allows us to connect on a deeper level with others in a way that promotes well-being.
In my opinion cooking is the most basic metaphor for life. We are all given ingredients when we are born. As we get older, we acquire more ingredients along the way and hopefully pick up some spices too. How we decide to prepare and handle those ingredients as we get older depends a lot on our attitude. Hopefully you choose to cook something special with your ingredients and share it with the world.